This is the sixth in a series of articles in which author Steven Erikson deconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, an excerpt from his most recent novel Forge of Darkness.
Kadaspala stared down at the child’s face. There was dirt on one cheek but otherwise the skin was clean and pure. Apart from the eyes, the only discordant detail was the angle between the head and the body, which denoted a snapped neck. And bruising upon one ankle, where the killer had gripped it when whipping the boy in the air – hard enough to separate the bones of the neck.
When revising this paragraph, I will make sure the word “neck” is not repeated. When you use repetition, do it with intent. The accidental stuff: get rid of, it distracts. Anyway, what we get here is objective physical description of what he is looking down at. These details add veracity.
The gods of colour brushed lightly upon that face, in tender sorrow, in timorous disbelief. They brushed light as a mother’s tears.
The emotional context of these two lines is all Kadaspala’s. What if I had written: “Kadaspala looked down upon that face, filled with sorrow and disbelief.” Probably fine, but not good enough. By using his disassociation, by echoing his relationship with his gods, I can do a whole lot more. There is a level of connectedness established by the optional line I’ve just written, but it’s nowhere near as tight as my electing to use his gods for these emotions. Why is that? Well, maybe (and I’m just guessing here) we as readers are experiencing the same disassociation. We are, after all, reading a description of a terrible scene, in cruel, brutal detail. But we’re doing it once-removed, through the eyes of a fictional character. We are both disassociating. When reader and character do the same thing, we move from sympathy to empathy. Anyway, one can be far more poetic than that flat description of the alternative sentence, and the two lines in the paragraph are very poetic (I don’t mean that as a boast: I mean, they are structurally poetic). Finally, the use of the alternative sentence would have precluded the second sentence, which is the emotional hammer. By using “mother’s tears” we are forced to connect the dead child to his mother, who, if alive, would surely have wept in grief.
The fingers of his right hand, folded over the saddle horn, made small motions, painting the boy’s face, filling the lines and planes with muted colour and shade, working round the judgment-less eyes, saving those for last. His fingers made the hair a dark smudge, because it was unimportant apart from the bits of twig, bark and leaf in it. His fingers worked, while his mind howled until the howling fell away and he heard his own calm voice.
The obsessive artist and his habit return, and like a god he creates for us (the reader) the image of this dead child’s face. He even decides what’s important and what isn’t. Because of the tight POV I don’t even question it as author; and as reader, neither should you. Besides, while he calls the boy’s hair unimportant, he then undercuts that with the details of “twig, bark and leaf.” Things which a mother would surely brush away…
‘Denier child” … so I call it. Yes, the likeness is undeniable – you knew him? Of course you did. You all know him. He’s what falls to the wayside in your triumphant march. Yes, I kneel now in the gutter, because the view is one of details – nothing else, just details. Do you like it?
Do you like this?
Stylistically, I use italics* for internal monologue. I set the precedent long ago and my readers now understand my usage of italics. But this one has an added twist. He is addressing “you.” Who is that “you” for Kadaspala? Neither of us is prepared to answer that. But it might be … all of us. The artist standing beside his work nods and smiles and says…
Just as in this fictional world, in our world children are dying, in myriad ways, all of them unjust on one level or another. Also, since this is the poet’s tale, are these really Kadaspala’s thoughts, or that poet’s?
Within the context of this tale, the “you” can be seen (with relief) as K’s fellow Tiste, his highborn kin. And from that we can conclude that we are given the targets of his rage. Of course, we might also conclude that we are all the targets of this artist’s rage, as he stands beside the painting depicting deeds permitted by our indifference…
The gods of colour offer this without judgment. In return, it is for you to make the judgment. This is the dialogue of our lives.
This is the journalist’s credo, in every photograph of atrocity. The artist records, reports, unveils, exposes. To see the revelation is to engage in a dialogue with it, even if that dialogue is short and is characterized by indifference. The question of judgment is left open. Anyway, at this point, we’ve moved away from the technical and into the thematic, so I’ll stop there.
Of course I speak only of craftsmanship. Would I challenge your choices, your beliefs, the way you live and the things you desire and the cost of those things? Are the lines sure? Are the colours true? What of those veils on the eyes – have you seen their likeness before? Judge only my skill, my feeble efforts in imbuing a dead thing with life using dead things – dead paints, dead brushes, dead surface, with naught but my fingers and my eyes living, together striving to capture truth.
These lines are carefully fashioned to bridge our two worlds, the fictional one and the real one. I do this on occasion. Why, because I want to blur the distinction and so carry the themes across into our own lives.
I choose to paint death, yes, and you ask why – in horror and revulsion, you ask why? I choose to paint death, my friend, because life is too hard to bear. But it’s just a face, dead paints on dead surface, and it tells nothing of how the neck snapped, or the wrongness of that angle with the body. It is, in truth, a failure.
And each time I paint this boy, I fail.
I fail when you turn away. I fail when you walk past. I fail when you shout at me about the beautiful things of the world, and why didn’t I paint those? I fail when you cease to care, and when you cease to care, we all fail. I fail, then, in order to welcome you to what we share.
This face? This failure? It is recognition.
Hmm, artistic statement? A good place for making a comment or two about postmodernism and metafiction. In the early eighties, when metafiction (self-conscious narration that breaks the illusion of fiction by addressing the reader directly) was all the rage, I recall railing (in workshops) against the bludgeoning obviousness of the examples being touted, just as I railed against the assumption that Magic Realism needs to be equally obvious and unsubtle. In these forms, the effect quickly lost its ardour and became just one more fad in fiction, and although Magic Realism persists as a form of fiction (in the pan-genre of the Fantastic), metafiction rarely rears its head these days (that I’m aware of). The reason for this withering is, I think, rather straightforward: to read fiction is to enter a fictive dream, the world of the writer, and the world that the writer creates. Breaking this dream has the same effect as a bad sentence breaking the dream, or the wrong word-choice. It knocks one awry. But then … what if one makes the metafiction subtle? What if one creates a form that can both address the audience directly while still, arguably, remaining within the fictive dream? In essence, this is what I began doing in my ten-volume series, and what I continue to do. It is what is going on in this “silent” address by Kadaspala. While he is ostensibly speaking to an audience within his world, he is also speaking to the reader. The veil isn’t torn aside; it’s made temporarily transparent. And through this, I endeavour to make my fantasy fiction relevant to the real world of the reader: it is not escapism at all. It is not talking about a made-up world: it is talking about this one.
Editor’s Note: Throughout this series I have distinguished excerpt text from authorial analysis by italicizing the former. In this segment, in order to denote italicization in the original excerpt text, I have set it in bold type.
Photograph published with permission of author
Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (8)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (7)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (6)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (5)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (4)